So far, confirmed news on Nintendo’s Switch is difficult to come by. We know the chip is based on Nvidia technology, we know it’s a hybrid console, and we know it’ll feature detachable controllers. Now, we have a bit more information from the FCC, and while we can’t put this in the 100% confirmed category, it’s a strong indication. Filings with that organization show that the Switch hardware Nintendo submitted for testing and verification — hardware that’s supposedly equivalent to the final shipping product — doesn’t contain a user-removable battery.
How much this will be an issue is an open question, but events this year have left me more dubious of these kinds of decisions than I was before. Microsoft sold Surface 3 hardware to people on the promise that it would offer a sub-$ 200 battery replacement fee in the event of premature failure, before reneging on that agreement. Refusing to put a user-replaceable battery in the Samsung Galaxy S6 was one of the reasons why that device didn’t sell particularly well, and Samsung reversed course with the Galaxy S7 when it launched earlier this year. Of course, the flip side to this is that there are millions of devices sold without user-replaceable batteries every single year, since iPhones have never featured them.
Of course, owners will presumably have the option to power the Switch from third-party battery packs, but the lack of a replaceable battery is somewhat new for Nintendo. The company has previously offered battery packs for its handheld devices and currently ships an extended battery pack that can fit the Wii U’s GamePad as well. Of course, it’s always possible that Nintendo is preparing different system SKUs, some with different battery sizes or options — we won’t know until we get additional information on how many different SKUs Nintendo plans to ship and how it plans to configure them. Generally speaking, batteries tend to wear out more quickly in hardware that puts a heavier drain on them in the first place, since more frequent charge cycles means a battery that declines more quickly. Manufacturers can push back against this trend by limiting how much the battery can charge or discharge in the first place, but all lithium-ion battery chemistries of which I am aware slowly degrade over time.
This isn’t the kind of issue we’ll be able to diagnose at launch, either. It’s entirely possible that the batteries inside the Switch will hold up well over several years and still hold most of their charge at the 3-4 year-mark. It’s also possible that we’ll see fairly significant declines by 2-3 years, with end-users who aren’t rich enough to pony up for new hardware forced to rely on external battery packs connected via USB-C instead. I don’t know that it’ll shift anyone’s buying habits, but it would’ve been nice if Nintendo had opted for user-replaceable batteries from the get-go, rather than forcing users to essentially bet that it wouldn’t be a problem at some point in the future.